February 2009

9.45 Just arrived and registered at the Convention. First puzzle of the day: I’m in the M queue (for People’s Republic of Mortimer, of course) and the queue next to mine is non-existent. The NOP girl has nothing to do. “Anyone NOP?” she calls hopefully from time to time. Clearly people whose names start with NOP are not very liberal. The W queue, on the other hand, stretches all the way back to the complimentary apple juice.

10.02 Shami Chakrabarti is giving a lengthy and passionate keynote speech. It’s familiar ground – the slow creep of encroachment, giving up our liberties not with a bang but with a whimper, even the basic human right not to be tortured is now under threat – but hearing it in a building full of fellow travellers is a new experience. Is this right? “I say no. I say, hell no.” says Shami.

10.05 Ooh, harsh words for the idea of the removal of the Human Rights Act – the Conservatives’ last-minute attempt to jump on the Freedom Bill band wagon. Anyone see how this got reported on the front page of Guardian Online politics? “Cameron pledges bill to restore freedoms. Lib Dem back Conservatives pledge to replace the HRA with a British bill of rights.” Shocking. The actual story of course was that Cameron has proposed to scrap the HRA and replace it with a Bill of Rights, and supports the Convention. The Lib Dems also support the Convention. FFS. This is reportage, is it? Guardian FAIL.

10.10am Dominic Grieve is up now. I have a lot of time for him since seeing him in the Coroners and Justice Bill Second Reading – a hard act for David Howarth to follow (although he did it). He has somewhat spoiled his record more recently by agreeing that Jack Straw was right to veto the Information Tribunal order to release the Iraq cabinet minutes. Today he is making the link between what the Daily Mail calls the Peeceebrigadegawnmad and state interference. Mentions the case of the nurse who was suspended for praying for a patient.

He has a harsh, uncompromising delivery, which sometimes gives rise to white noise on the live feed I’m watching on, but nonetheless serves him well when he also expresses his outrage at the torture revelations of the moment. Big clap.

He explains what keeps him on the straight and narrow as a Conservative – who are as prone to authoritarianism as anyone else, he says. It is the idea, when on the brink of legislating some new infringement, that one’s grandfather would not have approved. Wry laughter.

10.18 Helena Kennedy being hilariously scathing. Is there something in the water at the home office? (the audience titter appreciatively – No2ID’s successful swiped Jacqui Smith’s fingerprints from her drinking water glass at an event last year.) They seem to get there, perfectly ordinary people, not mad, and are suddenly seized by the desire to reduce liberty.

10.23 She talks about the gradual process in a different sense – ministers are slipping into authorigtarianism so slowly they don’t realise it themselves. They still think they’re the good guys.

Ooh Henry Porter has just materialised in front of me! I’m sitting in the front reception at Logan Hall where I can nose around and see who’s here. The Porter swoops off.

“The state is here at our behest and we are not here at the behest pf the state,” says Kennedy.

And by god does that get applause.

10.26 HK reveals the aim of the day – to put together a document that we can all put to our candidates at the next election, asking them will theysign up to this? Superb idea.

Ooh, a little No2ID baby has just been pushed past! The crowd are predominantly young out here, under 35, a bit raffish, determined-looking, very few suits. It makes me wonder if we’re  coming to a time when it’s not necessary to dress and behave like a 55 year old in order to have serious purpose. Mind you, this all could be because we were the ones who were too disorganised and late to get into the main hall.

10.33 Sir David Varney (ex of HMRC I believe) is up now talking about databases. He believes our overall direction of travel should be towards the opt-in to data sharing model. Ooh, just found a copy of the Lib Dem freedom bill in my Convention bag-for-life.

10.36 Nick Clegg, by the way, is in the programme for this plenary session, but of course is now on paternity leave, which is a shame.

10.42 One of the first questions is from a Polish guy – he has experienced a repressive communist regime, where it was obvious there was a problem. He wants to know how we’re going to get the Sun readers on board – the Guardian readers already are.

Good question. Dominic Grieve says the Sun Reader (“he”) is a person of strong opinions and common sense. He is fed up with being preached to but he also cares about freedom – you need to talk to him in his own language. Grieve suddenly realises he should have said he or she halfway through what is otherwise a good answer.

Georgina Henry, chairing, follows up with a question to Grieve about whether the ascent of Chris Grayling means the Tories are contradictory on civil liberties? “No, I don’t think it does at all,” said Grieve. The audience collectively grumbles, “Oh yeah?” or words to that effect. He speaks on rather uncomfortably.

10.52 We’re taking questions from the Northern Ireland CoML now. Helena Kennedy in the course of an answer harks back to the earlier discussion and says she doesn’t think this is just a Guardian reader issue any more. She feels it’s a general view now. Her persuasion tactic on ID cards is to describe it as an “internal passport” – it does the same job as a passport, but on any street corner.

10.58 A question from a journalist who has signed the No2ID pledge. He clarifies that a passport will not be obtainable without an ID card. It will be illegal to travel abroad, in other words, without an ID card. This bears relation to some of the oppressive regimes he has reported from.

11.05 Ooh, namecheck for Twitter from a question. Doctor Pack will be pleased. Off to get myself a coffee now and agonise over which morning session to attend. Will the lure of Mr Dale be too much for me? Tune in at 11.45am to find out…

11.45 – Well, how could I resist? Tightly sandwiched between Philip Blond and Iain Dale in the creaking lift of the Institute of Education on the way up to their session, I thought, I have made the right decision.

Iain starts “I am Iain Dale and I’m a conservative.” A rumble of “Yurrrs”. Yup, I’m glad I came. Interesting to see them, you know, talking  to each other. Iain has an interesting personal history of having been an authoritarian Tory and having had his mind changed by 10 years of the most authoritarian British government of recent times.

He hopes some important questions will be answered during the session. Is Cameron really committed? What does the rise of Chris Grayling mean? What can we hope for now that David Davis is in the political wilderness? Good questions. So do I.

We have Iain, Laura Sandys, Tim Montgomerie, Philip Blond, Edward Garnier (currently on his way) and Dominic Raab.

Blond describes the conservative approach to the individual-state problem like this: the conservative tradition does not recognise the atomised individual per se – all individuals are part of a community, born into natural associations. Liberalism recognises, first and foremost, the individual, and it therefore requires the state to manage  relationships between individuals. This is why liberty does not proceed from liberalism – it proceeds from conservatism. I wonder what his response is to the various academics who take issue with his characterisation of liberalism as the creed of the individual? That’s not how many of the foremost liberal writers characterised their beliefs.

To me, it’s a straw that doesn’t need splitting. Being an individual immediately and necessarily means having the right to associate, form the links you want to form, become a part of the culture you choose. Liberalism naturally gives rise to communitarianism – except that it’s a communitarianism chosen by the individual. The vast majority will choose the community in front of them, they’ll be fine under a Conservative version of liberalism. But a few will not. They will not be fine. They need the liberals’ version of liberalism.

Tim Montgomerie essentially still holds the beliefs Iain did ten years ago (there’s a surprise). He suggests a Cameronian government would be inclined to libertarianism but would essentially be “pragmatic”.

12.02 Laura Sandys talks about liberty from the perspective of “freedom” – she finds this more accurately reflects the concerns that she finds on the street. This echoes Dominic Grieve’s earlier link of civil liberties with the Sun reader’s desire not to be interfered with by the Peeceebrigadegonmad.

As Grieve did, she draws on a lot of Peeceegonmad examples. It is a perfectly fair point that over-PC legislation is a part of the assault on our liberties, and it’s a perfectly fair point that this is also the best way to explain civil liberties to a large chunk of the population. But there’s a danger that  habitually using anecdote means you start reasoning by anecdote. Sandys had what I felt was a borderline example – a mother smacking their child in the supermarket, and she wanted to interfere to stop the child being hurt but felt unable. Depends on the degree of the smacking, of course, but I thought, Well… yeah? What about the mother’s  liberty to regulate the relationship between her and her child? (which is perhaps why the smacking ban needs a reassessment).

12.21 Edward Garnier takes a question on CCTV, and are the Conservatives really going to take a strong line on civil liberties? He personally sees the limits on CCTV as a judge, but thinks local communities ought to be able to have it if they want. It shouldn’t be a blanket system. Good answer. But will all Conservatives agree? “When I’m in government…If I get into government,” he corrects himself hurriedly, “I’ll have to be brave… The test will come for me after the next election.” No doubt this is a fair answer from a personal perspective but it hardly engenders confidence in me that the rest of his colleagues will take the same view. It’s still every Tory for himself, it seems, and we’re very much expected to take them on trust.

12.27 Laura Sandys talks about the need for less legislation under a Tory government. Good stuff. So do we see a rebellious back bencher of the future?

12.29 A good question about the need for a repeal act of existing measures as well as a new bill. Iain refers to the Liberal Democrat bill, jolly decently and I manage to shriek that everybody has a copy in their Convention bag (I take it it wasn’t just a special present for me.) Dominic Raab dodges the question and talks about the need for the new bill of rights only. Philip Blond separates them out again, and expressly supports the repeal idea as well  as the new bill idea.

Tim Montgomerie – wouldn’t repeal 28 days, but also thinks the Tories should be making a “generous outreach” to the Lib Dems. Hm, good luck.

12.33 Edward Garnier has a nice snippet. He thinks he’s promoting his party but actually he’s revealing their inner workings in a not terribly flattering light. By his account, the Tories have this very week scrambled to get together a list of the stuff that needs repealing. Nice to know the Freedom Bill has had an impact.

12.36 Ooh, Evan Harris is here. He asks Dominic about the idea of the repeal of HRA. The HRA imposes a positive duty, for example, for the government to provide information which has led to the torture relevations – so are the Tories seeking to get rid of duties like this? And if not, why bother reconstituting exactly the same measures in a British bill of rights? What will change? And he wants to know – how will the Tories fare on the harder questions of personal liberty? It’s easy for Tories to want local people to be allowed to open a creche. But what about people who want, e.g. access to violent pornography? Laura Sandys, who has impressed me up to now, fudges the answer.

12.45 Hoorah! Sarah Ludford is here too. There are millions of us. She does battle with Dominic Raab over application of European case law to English law and whether there is any real difference between European liberty and British liberty – what is it about British liberty that is superior? In what way would it be different to the current European version as enshrined in the HRA? Mental note: ask her for an LDV piece.

12.52 Philip Blond talks about the pluralism of an ideal Conservative Society. There’s more than one way to conceive of personhood. Again, this just underlines that there’s a common link between Conservatism and Liberalism – but it doesn’t mean anyone should be convinced that the Conservative party en masse thinks like this or will legislate/unlegislate accordingly.

12.56 John Morrison – who spoke at the keynote about ID cards – expresses scepticism about the Tories’ attitude to the HRA – he has heard a lot of contradictory things this morning. He asserts the need for the state to protect rights. There is some scoffing at this (I’m not sure why – they’re the ones proposing a Bill of Rights Act). Iain suggests it’s strange for a liberal to want the state to interfere and the panel to want decisions to be made locally. Correct – so long as localities are genuinely allowed to make decisions, including those which Tories might not like.

13.21 A sandwich grab later, I’m at the bloggers’ summit. Missed the opening remarks, alas, as I’m intrigued to know what Sunny Hundal wants this session to produce. Heather Brooke, an American journalist now working in Britain is saying a lot of interesting things about the contrasting availability of, e.g. police data to US journalists as opposed to UK counterparts.

13.25 Ben Goldacre up now – brilliantly excoriates journalistic standards. He talks about the way the blogosphere ensures that no effort of his is ever wasted – his findings are always discussed or investigated.

He has a fascinating example about how bloggers’ obsessiveness can expose crooks and crises faster than the mainstream media. He spent last year investigating, amongst other “big pharma and big quacka”, the company that a “cure” for dyslexia. It was bloggers who were getting accountant friends to help them interpret the accounts and posting warnings that the company was in trouble. It was bloggers who were watching the forums on which anxious parents were discussing their children’s treatment, and picked up on the cancellation of appointments as the first sign that the company was closing its clinics. After this happened, Radio 4 ‘s You and Yours was still running programmes about the benefits of the drug. Bloggers 1, mainstream media 0.

13.35 Phil Booth of No2ID adds to a point of Ben’s about the value of “chaotic and puerile investigative journalism” as practised by bloggers. He stresses that civil liberties campaigns like him don’t have the time to get through all the material, make all the FOI requests – people should involve themselves in looking at the material. A thousand eyeballs are better than one.

13.45 Heather Brooke: “You’ve got no First Amendment, you have the  worst libel law in the world. How can you call yourself a democracy?” Can’t argue with that.

14.11 Excellent fast-moving bloggers’ session done – too much for your humble correspondent to report, but I’m sure Liberal Conspiracy will be chewing it all over in due course. Excellent to run into Andrew Adams who has just posted a very complimentary piece over there about the Lib Dems Freedom Bill.

Now, if I can’t resist Iain Dale, I certainly can’t resist Vince Cable. He’s on the panel along with Will Hutton, Kate Hoey and Suzanne Moore to discuss whether liberty can “survive the slump”. Is it just too much of a luxury for these hard times to be worrying about civil liberties?

15.21 Argh! Battery laptop FAIL! Just as Our Man’s session got underway. Fortunately I am now hiding behind James Graham in the front lobby and have access to a power socket, and the schedule officially decrees a coffee break. A quick revisit of the session from my crabbed notes:

Will Hutton was extremely serious, extremely lengthy, and scared the gibbering fuck out of us all.  His essential point was that this is the vital moment at which Enlightenment values must be reasserted. The global stage in particular is becoming frightening and more oppressive. He summoned the spectre of war with Russia if we do not, as a culture, reassert the values of liberty.

I was inclined to contrast his performance unfavourably with that of Philip Blond this morning, who mentioned the exclusiveness of Enlightenment values – this very French, very middle-class idea of what it means to be a liberal. It was basically Blond’s contention that “the Enlightenment” and its values are not the unalloyed good most assume when they use the term (as Hutton did). Blond’s assessment is more satisfying to me, partly because I’m a medievalist and partly (and probably relatedly) because I am a right awkward cuss and like contrarian arguments.

Next up Suzanne Moore. Hm. The journalist who left the Guardian and the Indy and went to the Daily Fail. And I want to have her babies. I’ll tell you why. She started out with the now-familiar link between PC brigade stuff and liberty, nicely characterised our times as the age of “what not to wear” – bossy experts everywhere, not just in government. And then she caame on to a cause extremely close to my heart: alcohol.

She’s the mother of teenaged and twenties’ aged people, and she is palpably personally offended by society’s attitude to young people. Any group of teenagers is now treated, by default, as a threat to society. A gathering of more than twenty people in a house is now a rave by police standards. And god forbid that kids discover the demon drink. But she also thinks young people are the answer. Just by acting like they do, they’re already objecting to the nanny state – they’re drinking in the street, twittering and facebooking resistance, being messy, stupid, doing the wrong thing. Good for them.

We must avoid the temptation to be high-minded about this, she said – yes, we must care about the rights of people in Guantanamo, but we also have to care about the rights of the pissed teenager in the street – their rights to do what the hell they like are the same rights that should protect torture victims. It was all I could do not to stand up and yell “Hear hear!” , but this isn’t a Lib Dem conference and there are Normal People here, so I didn’t. Fantastic speech.

15.56 I’m sorry, loving People. I am missing Philip Pullman’s speech. I’ve spent too long sitting in hot rooms with a laptop today on the strength of two delicate crab sandwiches and a banana, and some recovery time is merited before the afternoon plenary session with Chris Huhne gets underway.

On with my notes from the Vince Cable session:

Kate Hoey, one of Labour’s token good MPs came next: she took the title of the session and turned it on its head: since an economic boom saw an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, maybe a time of slump is a time which could herald recovery rights. Leaping on a bit (you can do that when you’re not liveblogging) Vince Cable’s points actually harked back to this very closely. He talked about the three angry groups that would emerge from the slump.

1. The students – he has been told by a lecturer that half the student population graduating this year will be unable to find a job. This will eventually result in a large, educated, angry “army” of young people, who will make their voice heard – and we don’t yet know how they’ll doi that.

2. The public sector – in a few years there will be really swingeing cuts in public sector spending. Public sector workers will form another angry, disiullsioned group.

3. People in debt who find bailiffs are able to come into their homes and use “reasonable force” against people in respect of recoverng perhaps even small debts. Once people grasp that this, Vince thinks there will be real “middle class anger” about the removal of our liberties.

16.14 Must move on from that now as we are moving into the final session. The first speaker whom I can only assume was Afua Hirsch has just given a rather patronising and vapid account of Why Rights Are a Good Thing, children, and she managed to slip in “equality” as analogous to basic human rights. No surprise then, that she believed the next speaker, a Labour PPC, represented a new generation of young people who were very aware of the value of their rights. Yeah, so aware that they joined the Labour party.

He nearly loses my support immediately by using “mainstream” as a verb three or four times in quick succession, but has some reasonably interesting things to say about how we need to associate our objections to the database state with an objection to “big brother business”. It’s a point of view that many Lib Dems would express and with which I have some sympathy.  But people choose to be associated with businesses as consumers. The fact that  big businesses are de facto monopolies and consumers have too little choice when selecting their supplier of what-have-you is a problem with protected capitalism, not with the businesses themselves.

Eek! He proudly hints at the Labour party “making a pledge” to stop people being bothered by marketing calls. Um. I don’t think that alone is going to be enough.

16.24 Chris Huhne is up now. Good quote (there’s a lot of them floating around today): “A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested by the police.”

He’s dipping into party politics a little too much for my taste , but he gets interrupted with applause when he reaffirms the Lib Dem commitment to, er, not repeal the Human Rights Act. And he gets a fantastic response to the extended version of this argument – the Germans reclassified the Jews as non-citizens, that’s how they were able to commit genocide, and a European human rights act would have prevented them from doing that. If we allow our  legal definition of human rights to be replaced by a legal definition of British rights, that is the risk we run. For the first time I’ve heard today, there’s applause out here in the lobby as well in the hall.

16.40 Brian Eno – I’ve not heard him speak before. I confess to a moment of cringe when one of Nick Clegg’s first acts as leader was to appoint him adviser on youth issues. But by god, he’s an interesting fellow. He frames the whole liberty debate in terms of human beings’ ability to imagine the future, and empathise with others in the present. We’ve shortened our vision of the future, he argues, we do fewer and fewer things with an eye to the long view. The media doesn’t help – his implication is that governments frame legislation in terms of how it will look on the front of the Mail.

Authoritarian governments clamp down on discussion, their view narrows, out-of-the-ordinary people are not tolerated, Brian goes on. So our antidote has to be to take the opposite view – we need more nutters! In particular, these ideas need to be practised in education. Children should spend their educations swimming in liberty. It ought to be the one time in their lives that they’re able to try any experiment, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Unfortunately schools have also adopted the short-termist business model. Big clap for that.

I do recommend watching Brian’s segment if you can get hold of it. I can’t get across the full flavour of what he said in a few scraps live-blogging but he was an inspiring speaker.

Just time for an incendiary question from Evan Harris. Earlier I caught up with him after the Conservative session and asked if he was satisfied with the answers he got to his questions. Unsurprisingly he was not – Laura Sands, the Tory PPC in particular, he felt, just hadn’t understood that it might be necessary to respect the rights of people to do things that she might not personally approve of. He asks it again now, and is interrupted with applause again and again. What about the rights of criminals, of asylum seekers, of failed asylum seekers? It’s easy to talk about “our rights”. What about “their rights”?

17.46 I’m limping along on borrowed power again – a quick round-up of events since I last posted. One of the best questions closing the last session was from another regional conference, didn’t catch which, asking if the panel would commit to another Convention next year to assess the progress made and call the three main parties to account on their civil liberties record. Sounds good to me and the panel thought so too.

18.16 Astonished no-one in the questioning called Chris Huhne on Geert Wilders. That’s the only time today I’ve wished this was a Lib Dem conference – where knowledge of party politics would have been that much deeper. Someone would have asked. Someone will ask next weekend I hope.

Quick word on David Davis’ speech: fabulous. Do read it. Isn’t it strange how things change? When he wasn’t elected as Tory leader, the media mood was one of relief because he favoured capital punishment. Now, and in spite of that – and it’s a big “in spite of” – I find myself wondering what position we’d be in now if he had been elected leader.

Time now to stagger to a halt. I must awa’ to greasy food of some kind. There’ll be more in the morning after, no doubt, but for now thank you and good night.

You heard this first in the People’s Republic.* Ready?

  • Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals.
  • Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud.
  • Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy.
  • Abolish the flawed control orders regime.
  • Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States.
  • Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people.
  • Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain.
  • Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the Information Commissioner and reducing exemptions.
  • Stop criminalising trespass.
  • Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers.
  • Prevent allegations of ‘bad character’ from being used in court.
  • Restore the right to silence when accused in court.
  • Prevent bailiffs from using force.
  • Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping.
  • Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law.
  • Remove innocent people from the DNA database.
  • Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days.
  • Scrap the ministerial veto which allowed the Government to block the release of Cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.
  • Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children.
  • Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras.

Henry Porter’s dream shopping list? Labour’s nightmare scenario? Yes, both of those, but more than that, the above list is the substance of the first draft of the Liberal Democrats’ Freedom Bill.

Oh boy. Am I happy they’ve done this – though not before time. The idea of the one bill to rule them all was originally an initiative of Clegg’s when he was Shadow Home Sec’y (back before civil liberties was fashionable), and it’s been out in the cold for too long.

And it doesn’t end there either. The site proclaims:

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the freedoms that have been lost in recent years. Sadly, there are too many. It is intended to be a starting point – to show people how much personal liberty has been stripped away by this Government and the one before it. The Freedom Bill and the corresponding website is a consultative document. We want to hear from you. What have we missed? What have we got wrong? What do you disagree with? Where should we have gone further? Which do you think are the most important rights to restore? What else would you like to see on the website?

For the sake of liberty, go to the site, sign the petition, comment on the draft and sign up to the RSS to show your (whole-hearted and enthusiastic support/qualified approval with the rider that the Lib Dems are still a bunch of wets and you don’t much like the cut of their jib except for Vince Cable, he’s a LEGEERRRND he is/some psychologically unsatisfactory combination of the two that you can’t quite come to terms with) – delete as applicable.

* Unless you read it first at Lib Dem Voice.**

** Or unless you read it first at Comment is Free.

I seem to be in that Friday night crystal window of thought between Gin & Tonic #3 and Gin & Tonic #4 so thought it just the time to have a root through the giant brain of Philip Blond, “high priest” of the so-called Red Toryism, who was profiled in the New Statesman yesterday.

I have been meaning to write about him for some time because he’s a fellow medievalist, and there’s nothing that causes me to cast off political allegiance so quickly as a jolly good chat about fourteenth-century constitutional change.

Blond shares my belief (and that of the famed Idler, Tom Hodgkinson) that medievalism is a surprisingly useful body of knowledge to bring to bear on the modern world. And its appeal is not limited to any one party or direction. Consider the ten medieval values (with my notation) outlined by Hodgkinson:

ANTI-CAPITALIST: Lending at interest, or usury, is at the basis of the capitalist system. And usury was quite specifically proscribed by medieval ethics… Very much the mood of the moment, as Tom pointed out again in the wake of the bank crisis.

ANTI-WORK: According to historian Jacques Le Goff, the medievals were opposed to hard work, because, he says, to put in long hours displayed a lack of faith in Providence. Theologically, medieval Catholicism was closer to an almost Taoist Oriental fatalism than today’s Protestant culture. And hard work might give you an unfair advantage over your brothers. Political movements do not  lend themselves to fatalism for obvious reasons, but there is something here that smacks of the “equality of outcome” beloved of the left.

ANTI-COMPETITIVE: Craftsmen organised themselves into a system of Guilds. Guild members mutually agreed to keep quality high and prices uncompetitive. They instituted the notion of a “just and fixed price” for their wares… Classic leftist protectionism.

ECO-FRIENDLY: In the era before electricity, coal, gas or nuclear power, the medievals heated themselves from sustainable sources: ie, wood. They used water and wind power to grind corn. The UK was covered in eco-friendly windmills. All vegetable production was necessarily organic, and everyone “shopped local”… Liberal localism and environmentalism.

SELF-SUFFICIENT: Even the meanest medieval peasant grew vegetables and herbs and kept pigs and chickens. And the giant yeoman class became very prosperous. Chaucer wrote of his Franklin: “It snowed in his house of mete and drynke.” Again, liberal localism.

HOSPITABLE: Just as indigenous people today would share their last crust with you, so the medievals emphasised the importance of good hospitality. The monasteries would take in wandering men and give them beer, bread and bacon, and indeed, the (later) problem of homeless, in the Elizabethan age, was a direct result of the destruction of the monasteries. A touch of Tory paternalism here, anti-welfare state.

CHARITABLE: In the days before charity had become just another institutional mega-business, it really did begin at home. The importance of charity was constantly insisted upon and there were plenty of wandering beggars and other mendicants who were ready to receive your alms. There was no disgrace attached to poverty: in fact, it was a state to be celebrated, because the apostles were poor. We had the example of St Francis of Assisi who became voluntarily poor. As above, plus true liberal individualism in the co-existence of the two ideals of wealth and poverty.

PARTY-LOVING: The medieval calendar was absolutely studded with feast days and festivals. Of course, we all celebrate Christmas now, but Christmas then was celebrated for 12 days, during which no one was allowed to work. Every three or four weeks there was some excuse for a party. May Day was for having sex and every three of four weeks there was a long break. Liberal permissive social values and communitarianism.

CHIVALROUS: It was the medieval knights and specifically the great Troubadours of Southern France who invented the custom of courtly love. Chivalry, respect and courtesy towards women was constantly insisted upon, and there were great female patrons of these poets, such as, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Good manners were important. Tory social values.

NEIGHBOURLY: Christ had conceived of the world as a “brotherhood of man” and civility to your neighbour was paramount. This is because the medievals had a sense of collective responsibility: we are all in this together, so your well-being and my well-being are one and the same thing. Liberal localism and communitarianism.

Blond, of course, prefers the Tory and some of the liberal elements as his medieval building blocks. But he offers an extra insight which I think is spot on: the post-medieval state centralisation project. I’ve discussed this before myself. Blond:

[Oliver] Letwin led the way by giving a historical account of how bureaucracy first arose through the creation of the state by the monarch, who, in wishing to assert and codify his control over the realm, inaugurated a vast centralised system of state control to regulate and direct his subjects. He then concluded that this has led to its modern correlate: a managerial and bureaucratic state wholly unresponsive to its citizens and indifferent to their needs.

… a medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships, was destroyed by the new vertical “secular monarchs”. From the 14th century on, they asserted their power and corrupted a pre-existing highly plural and reciprocal community with demands for top-down allegiance, authority and control.

The only point I’d make here is that he and Letwin are pegging the change too early – the kind of centralist “vertical monarchy” he’s talking about only really took off with the Tudors a hundred years later.

He goes on to say that it is the task of the Tories to return to the bottom-up and pluralistic medieval model in a “post-bureaucratic age”. A lot of liberals will find resonance in that, and not just when the state is under discussion. Looking back over the eighteen-month history of the People’s Republic, I find a pattern of frustration with big systems that affect to serve all and end up serving no-one in both the state and private sectors, and an inclination to localism, efficiency and self-organisation. It’s my belief that a simpler and more individually tailored way of life would bring greater economic and social benefits than all the monolithic systems ever could that makes me a liberal. There can be little better training for the liberal life than a solid grounding in medieval history.

So what on earth, I asked a fellow who has chatted with Blond, is the difference between Red Toryism and liberalism? All this business about localism, autonomy and community sounds dashed familiar. “I think he’s moderately socially conservative,” was the reply, “He finds liberalism too permissive – he thinks that there are virtues of community which should occasionally cause us to subvert our individualism to the common good”

Thus at the end of the same piece:

the real escape from bureaucracy occurs when communities are formed that reconstitute traditions across time and place such that all relationships within that community become practised and no formal account of their nature and fulfilment is required.

Instead actions and behaviour are the subject of unconscious agreement and completion. So conceived, an ancient conservative communitarianism can be married to a hyper-modern network of trade and exchange to the mutual benefit of all.

Yup, pure social conservatism. The NS characterises Blond’s critique of liberalism like this:

liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the “broken society” overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill.

Liberals are, in Blond’s view “fatally indifferent” to social obligations of the sort that the Tory tradition values. These social obligations, to his mind, are the only effective building blocks of society. Liberalism, far from being a prerequisite for successful communitarianism, is in fact damaging to it.

First, the case for the defence. Liberalism is a prerequisite for the communitarian future because only pure liberalism positively requires that power be handed back to communities, and only pure liberalism provides that individuals have the inborn and inalienable right to self-organise. Tory paternalism does not, Labour centralism certainly does not. That much, I think, is very supportable.

Moreover, most liberals would be extremely surprised to learn that they “repudiate” society. Implicit in Blond’s take on liberalism is his belief that “society” consists solely in traditional relationships. Now, unless history is static, that’s seems to me to be a belief with no meaning. One age’s traditional relationships are another age’s dangerous social innovation. But here’s a shock. In another sense I agree with Blond. There are, indeed, times when individualism needs to be subverted for the common good.

There is a critical caveat, however – it’s simply not necessary for either legislation or artificial cultural pressure to force individuals to do this. Because we do it all by ourselves. The fact that social obligations are long-standing effective societal bonds should alone tell Blond that. Human beings are, on average, naturally good at social conservatism. They literally self-select for it. I’m an abberation (and so, in other senses, is Blond) – but we’re here because society can bear the cost of abberations; they’re worth it for the innovation they bring.

Still, no permissive liberal should be in any doubt about this: if the most extreme gun-toting libertarians took over the world tomorrow and set everybody “free”, a sizeable chunk of the population would instantly organise itself into socially conservative, strictly regulated communes.

It’s the liberal’s job to let them get on with that. It’s not the liberal’s job to impose their own permissiveness on others any more than it’s the social conservative’s job to impose their conservatism. Either would interfere with a perfectly natural and effective permissive/conservative balancing act that has kept human society from self-destructing in too regular and wanton a manner for thousands of years. Social liberalism does not preclude social conservatism.

The social conservatism that Blond sees as so central to his thesis is, in fact, a bolt-on, just as permissiveness would be another sort of bolt-on. A true localist liberal must be prepared to countenance both sorts of society, if both can prove their worth by surviving.

In short, what Blond has to say is eighty per cent a liberalist and localist creed, not undermined in its essentials by the twenty per cent that is influenced by social conservatism. And what Cameron chickens out of implementing, we can chew on for ourselves. I am looking forward to the book.

Really. I’ve never said it before. I’ve never thought it before. But thank god for Boris.

Because if London was still a Labour city, if Boris was not chairman of the MPS, London’s women would shortly become guinea pigs in the trialling of – and I kid you not – targetted war on terror propaganda in hairdressing salons.

Who gets the pleasure instead? The only major city left in Labour hands – the city that will also have the dubious pleasure of “piloting” ID cards. Manchester.

From the Manchester Evening News (who, to their great credit have splashed this on their front page in today’s print edition):

HAIR salons could soon be in the frontline in the war on terror. Police research shows women are less likely to take on board security messages.

Now experts have pinpointed hair salons as the perfect place to target them.

They plan to show videos while women are having their hair done to encourage them to report suspicious behaviour on a special hotline.

Remember Children of Men? That futuristic dystopia, in which anti-immigratrion adverts encouraging people to inform on their neighbours are constantly played on public transport?

Can this be true? I don’t mean to imply any slur on the subs and fact-checkers at MEN, but really, can this be true? It’s grotesque.

It must be stopped – they must be stopped, this is bloody ridiculous. Campaigning trousers are going on. More later.

Just now I was to be found issuing a schoolmarmly ticking awf to noted libertarian Ms Charlotte Gore for being a grumpy sourpuss over the advent of the (noted social democrat) Social Liberal Forum. I paraphrase:

“It’s not fair!” said she.

“It is fair,” said I, “Work harder.”

But here’s where I think she may have a point:

Is this really a sign that the people who used to be the cool hip young things in the party, the people with all the influence and all the power are beginning to feel marginalised, out of touch and losing their ability to act as this party’s brain?

I’m not so sure about the people actually behind SLF, but this diagnosis certainly chimes with the tedious fact-free internet arguments I’ve been involved in with other self-styled social democrats. Some of them do seem remarkably keen to assert their age, experience and length of time in the party as proof that they are more likely to be right than I am. It’s as if the 1960s never happened sometimes. Irony of ironies.

Anyway, this isn’t based on an sample of one. We’ve seen this before. When normal men enter into their midlife crisis, they buy a sportscar. Perhaps when political men enter their midlife crisis, they start a ginger group.

Very little, you might think. After all, one’s a pioneering creative working in the pay of some of the most powerful, feared and megalomaniacal individuals of his day, and the other is a Venetian Renaissance painter.

One answer could be the one suggested by Ryan on the Lib Dem Voice internal mailing list*, that no-one knows exactly how old they are. The other and not unrelated answer is that CCHQ appears to have it in for both of them. The BBC, under the treasurable headline “Tories admit to Wiki-alteration“, report the following:

During exchanges at prime minister’s questions, the Tory leader mocked Mr Brown for talking of Titian at 90, when he said in fact he had died age 86.

Shortly afterwards a Wikipedia user registered at Tory HQ moved his birth date forward by four years.

The party admitted an “over-eager” member of staff had been responsible.

Ah, the old over-zealous researcher, one of the most useful figures in the Westminster Village. Although in this case, perhaps CCHQ were a bit quick to reach for the standard comeback, because all things being equal the zealous researcher in question is not only zealous, but stupid. Paul Waugh in the Standard, who had the story first and who initially reported it much as the Beeb does, has this intriguing twist:

A close check of the Wiki history shows that Titian was originally listed as having an age of 91 (born1485, died 1576), Then some bod from Sutton changed it at 1229pm to 88 (born 1488 died 1576) and THEN the Tory official changed it – not to Cameron’s claim of 86 – but to 82 (born 1490 died 1572). Poor old Titian lost nine years in a matter of minutes.

And Cameron lost his Slytherin House Debating Trophy 2009. So is this zealotry tempered with stupidity or sabotage? And in the interests of public information, would the bod from Sutton, if they’re reading, please stand up?

Anyway, Waugh also has the piece of information that clinches the connection between a four-hundred year old Italian and the Lib Dem Head of Innovations:

How do we know this? Well the ip address for the change – which seems to be that of CCHQ.

A quick search on iplocation shows that the above address is listed Conservative Central Office, London, UK.

And this be the selfsame IP address as wot originated the following comment on Lib Dem Voice last year:

I would hate to live in Dr Packs bitter world of bile [sic]

And that’s coming from CCHQ, mind.

*Where we pull stuff together and sort stuff out, or at least hold stuff up and jabber excitedly about it for a bit before dropping it back onto the heap. The occasional attempts of opposition bloggers to imply that LDV is some kind of superslick party mouthpiece “co-ordinated” by the above-mentioned Dr Pack cause me no end of amusement.

In a way one’s sorry it isn’t true – it would mean that things like today’s 6pm pile-up of four posts within ten minutes of each other after a three hour gap would merely be a very cunning double blind, and not, in fact, the result of a thoroughgoing and cheerfully entrenched lack of co-ordination. This is the trouble with being unique liberal snowflakes. Great as an approach to public services reform, plays merry hell with publishing schedules.

Thanks to the Squiff for drawing my attention to this little gadget courtesy of DK.

The atheist bus campaign was all very fun and jolly, but there are other things I would pay serious money to put on the sides of buses. It’s probably just as well I’m never going to have the opportunity.


Possibly not my best carrot-to-stick ratio piece of messaging ever.

I mean, I’m sorry. I do try, I really do. My dad races 1960s sportscars. I feel a certain obligation to try to see the beauty in the combustion engine.

But I just hate the bloody things. I hate how noisy they are, how smelly they are, how ugly they are – I sometimes think I’ve gone through my entire life to date missing some essential eyesight component, because the cultural belief that cars can be attractive is so universal and unspoken and to me it just seems totally weird. I mean, it’s a tonne of metal and plexiglass held together with a bunch of rivets and welding in an unearthly shape of the sort that lurks in the nightmares of small children running a high fever. Exactly which classical muse are people invoking when they slap down their welding mask and set the nozzle on to Maximum Liquid Magna Core? Even the Greeks with their tremendous powers of imagination and penchant for fear-and-wonder spectacle never dreamed up anything as terrifying as the car.

But most of all I hate the way they bestride our cultural normative settings like a monstrous, greedy robot that demands one set of behaviour from everybody in the name of “convenience”. They demand that we pave over our gardens and flatten entire fifths of our city centres to create giant nightmarish concrete playgrounds for them, they sneeringly prevent our enjoying an innocent walk along beautiful wide Georgian boulevards without copping a lungful of exhaust fumes and an eye full of grit, they seal us off, physically and emotionally, from the world we’re moving through and ferry us as painlessly and thoughtlessly as a matter transporter from one dull duty to the next.

The irony is  they’re actually bloody inconvenient half the time. No-one, once they can drive, ever seems capable of the slightest cost-benefit analysis to see whether their car is bringing them net gain or just misery. People go through ridiculous twisted hoops of logic and effort to have them, use them and keep them – “I’ll park mine in the road with a permit until you take yours out, then put mine in the drive, except I’ll have to take mine out again before you get back because you’re doing the school run early tomorrow, but that means I have to come back from the pub which is five miles away to do it, and I won’t have the car, so I’ll get someone else who also lives five miles away from the pub to give me a lift back so I can move my car, although all that does mean that we’ll have used up our last permit so you’ll have to stop off on the way back from the school run at the post office, and that’ll mean parking somewhere so you’ll need some cash. There’s only a tenner in the pot – I’ll just pop out in the car and change it.” I mean, do you people ever listen to yourselves when you’re having this sort of conversation? Cars are part of the con, one of the great techno-egalitarian strides forward that was supposed to make our lives easier but actually ended up making it more complicated.

And these things fucking kill people, for god’s sake. As a pedestrian you live with the constant background terror that the next cretin tearing up molecules within a few feet of your precious human tissues will be the spontaneous heart attack victim or manic texter who will mount the pavement behind you and splatter your innards across their windscreen. You can tell no-one really cares about anyone else on the road because if they did, four-by-four drivers wouldn’t be such universal and unmitigated bastards – it’s because they know they’re safe unless they actually go and cut up a mechanised assault vehicle.

It’s not just pedestrians either – or at least it shouldn’t be. Motorways are places of such towering madness that it’s just as well all the people on them never actually stop to think about what they’re doing, because if they did they’d start screaming, “Oh fuck! I’m in a biscuit tin in a slightly odd sitting position being hurled along a stretch of asphalt at sixty miles an hour about seven feet in any given direction from a bunch of other hurtling people-tins who may or may not be on the verge of a heart attack/texting their boyfriend/have two brain cells to rub together AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

And yet, in the face of all this, it is the universal assumption that most people have a car! That most people choose to put themselves through this constant, multi-faceted hell of physical danger, logistical tedium and an administrative workload commensurate with fielding a small flotilla of submarines. And that they pay a fortune every month for the privilege! I’ve been flat-hunting recently, and the agent showing me a flat with a beautiful leafy garden seriously thought that one of its chief recommendations was the fact that it backed onto a service lane, so I could tear up the wisteria, concrete over the greenwood and park a car on it. I spoke to another agent only today to fix up an appointment.

Agent: “Fantastic, so we’ll see you outside the property at 3.”

Me: “Ok, great, what’s the address?”

Agent: “I’ll just get you the postcode… you’ve got satnav?”

Me: “No, sorry, we’re not yet in the cyberpunk future and I have not had satnav capabilities implanted into my temporal lobes, you petrol-headed pillock.”

It’s the same when they try to give you directions. “Go through the traffic lights, then take the third exit on the Western Way roundabout and you’ll see a hump-backed bridge sign…” That’s NO GOOD to me! I mean, whatever happened to the traditional method of giving someone the bloody address? Just, you know, the street name and the number of the house, so that I can look it up on what we call a map. Works great! Has worked really well for several hundred years!

You can possibly tell where this spiral of viciously disappointed rage is going. I’ve just worked out from obsessive examination of the particulars that the flat I have fixed to view with above-mentioned agent has, where nature and Victorian town planners intended a garden to be, a shared parking space with the flat above and not, as I thought, a parking space of its own which I could promptly reclaim for humanity with gravel, earth and tomato plants. Piss,  tits, bollocks and arse.

I don’t want a parking space! I want a bloody garden! You MANIACS! What have you done! The machines are already here and they’re already in control – no-one ever said the bastards had to be conscious.


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